Saturday Snapshot on the East Custer Trail

Years ago, we headed to a high point on one of the nastiest winter days to get a shot of sunset over the Badlands, west of the Missouri River.

Blaze orange sunset and cold blue snow, badlands and sentinel butte on the horizon.

Above the Custer Trail on a January afternoon, sunset from Square Butte with Sentinel Butte on the horizon to the right. Two of the highest points in the Badlands.

We crossed the Custer Trail a time or two on our drive west of the River. Then, when we got to the top of Square Butte to get our sunset photo, we realized we were literally above Custer’s Snow Camp .

Custer Trail signs caught our eye, but we weren’t sure about them. So, one day we picked up a Custer Trail Auto Tour brochure. They’re mighty tough to find — scarcer than a tutu at a roundup.

On the opposite end of the Custer Trail, the east end, we looked west to Square Butte where this story first started. Here, our first objective on this side of the Little Missouri River, was to find Easy Camp and the Easy Hill Overlook 

What’s over that hill?

custer trail sign at sunset

Follow the signs to discover what was a historic challenge to cross the Badlands and Grasslands.

It seems that many people have a saying that keeps them going.

“Go west young man,” isn’t our saying, that was phrased long before we arrived in the Badlands. 

Our motivational saying is: “I wonder what’s over that hill.” 

So we decided to find out more about the Custer Trail and the Custer Trail Auto Tour and what’s over that next hill.

Just like 1876

We turned off I-94 at Fryburg, exit 36.  The road is actually named “Main Street.”  Fryburg used to be a thriving town.  Now, it’s a ramshackle bunch of houses and a large empty brick school building. They say Fryburg was named for one General Fry of the United States Army.

Click on the map to get a larger view with labels and stops.

Yes, it’s greening up out here, alright. In fact it was probably a lot like this when Custer and his troops saw these hills. After all, it was the last half of May in 1876 that the 7th Cavalry trudged through here on the way to their last stand.

Custer and his cohorts General Sully and General Crook passed through here more than once, so they knew this was the way west.

The trail was probably first cut by a herd of bison followed by a Sioux hunting party. Settlers, emigrants and gold miners on their way to the alleged gold in them thar hills wandered through here. You can use your imagination as you drive the gravel road, and get an idea of how it must have been to get through here with hundreds of soldiers, horses, livestock and wagons.

Someone who set up the Custer Trail Auto Tour wrote:

An easy short jaunt up the hill.

“The 7th Cavalry’s progress was slowed to a crawl by the rugged terrain of the Badlands. They spent 10 days traveling a distance that entails approximately 35 miles on the parallel Interstate 94 Highway of today. Leaving Mandan on May 17, 1876, they spent from May 25 to June 3 at their six campsites of the area.”

Easy Hill Overlook

Just above the Easy Camp military campsite is Easy Hill Overlook. Probably not the most creative of names, but I s’pose it is appropriate.  It is an easy hill, that’s for sure.


We took the short and easy walk to the top gives to get an easy view of where at least 5 regiments of soldiers probably camped on their expeditions. The view is one of many along the trail that are camera-worthy. 

(If you are looking for fun photo safari ideas for you, your selfies or your family. We got ya covered. Here are 7 more photo safari ideas.)


Overlooking Easy Camp Valley

From the hill top, we stood where Custer may have stood. It’s the place to adjust your line of travel — assuming you’re not following the signs, the road or your GPS. It’s not hard; we just located distant landmarks such as Square Butte, and Bullion Butte. The Army used these tall markers to find their way west. Ranchers and cattle drovers used them to wind their way through the Badlands. Hunters from the Sioux, Hidatsa, Mandan, Crow, Cree, Shoshone and Cheyenne nations knew their way through the region by standing on hilltops like this to get their bearings. 




A Dusty Drive — when it’s dry

Once we left Easy Hill Overlook we could look back at the hill, and continue on exploring each of the historic sites.  Be prepared for dust when it’s dry like this.

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A  Muddy Drive — when it’s wet

When its wet, there’s at least one spot, Initial Rock, you may want to avoid. We’ve done it in a four-wheel drive full size pickup.

A small rattlesnake greeted us at the entrance to Coal Creek Campground on East River Road, south of Medora, North Dakota.

A small rattlesnake greeted us at the entrance to Coal Creek Campground on East River Road, south of Medora, North Dakota.

 Not sure we’d do it otherwise when it’s muddy.   We’ll tell you more later.The entire eastern loop is about two hours, depending on how much time you spend walking the trails, and exploring the sites.

Or you may get the chance to walk around rattlesnakes like the one we came across at Coal Creek Campground.

The western loop of Custer Trail Auto Tour is an entirely different kind of adventure, and we’re getting set to do that, too.  So, just subscribe to this blog and you’ll get a notice in your inbox when that story is ready.  You’ll be the first to know!

The Beautiful Badlands ND Facebook page is a good way to keep up with all that we find going on in the Badlands — kind of a clearinghouse of cool stuff in the Badlands.



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